cast pic

Steve Nallon as Margaret Thatcher, Paul Bradley as Geoffrey Howe, Graham Seed as Ian Gow and Carol Royale as Elspeth Howe.

Dead Sheep

Birmingham Rep

****

MARGARET Thatcher ruled Britain and the Conservative party with an iron fist throughout the 1980s, one of the most divisive and combative leaders of modern times.

The divisions were not just Labour against Tory, Left against Right, her leadership had left her own party with deep difference, a split between the more moderates, the so called wets, and the more hardline Thatcherites as well as the Europhiles and Eurosceptics. Nothing new there then.

To some she was regarded as a minor deity, to others she was the devil incarnate. There was no middle ground with Thatcher. Even today, a generation on, she still engenders either hero worship in those who prospered or hostility and anger in those who suffered during her premiership.

So it was strange that her downfall came not in some great clash of ideology, or battle against the unions, or even as a result of the Tory party’s particular bête noire, Europe, but from the last surviving member of her 1979 cabinet, a rather dull resignation speech from her former Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and deputy PM, Sir Geoffrey Howe.

He had, ostensibly, gone over her refusal to commit to a timetable for Britain to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism against the advice of both the then chancellor Nigel Lawson and the Bank of England. But, in truth, the relationship between the two had been strained for years.

Howe was not a renowned orator, in truth, to describe his speeches as dull would be a compliment. He was cruelly, but perhaps accurately, described as Mogadon Man buThatcher and Howet his 18-minute resignation speech on 13 November, 1990, quiet, cold, unemotional and softly spoken, was all the more explosive because of that.

He accused Thatcher of risking the future of the country and compared her ministers entering talks in Europe to a game of cricket. “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain".

Steve Nallon and Paul Bradley portray the uneasy relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe

He called on ministers to look at themselves and decide where their loyalties should really like. It was the catalyst, the blue touch paper had been lit. Three weeks later, Thatcher was gone.

Playwright Jonathan Maitland does not go into the wider politics of the time, the miners’ strike, privatisation, relaxed financial controls and the like, instead concentrating on the relationship between Howe and Thatcher, and Howe’s wife Elspeth, later Lady Howe, a crossbench peer. Elspeth with a social conscience and Thatcher with a monetarist agenda did not get on.

Paul Bradley is superb as Howe, quiet, uncharismatic, hardly combative, a little dithering, and reluctant to stand up for himself, while Steve Nallon  yes a man - is brilliant as Margaret Thatcher. Mind you he has had plenty of practice, becoming a founding member of Spitting Image in 1984, where he was the voice of the Iron Lady, a character he has played on and off ever since.

He has the voice, the mannerisms and facial expressions of Thatcher off to a tee. We see her treatment of Howe as at times appreciative, at times cruel and, in the death throes of their relationship, as vindictive. One suspects Thatcher never expected the worm to turn and to turn so effectively.

Clashing with her is Elspeth in a fine portrayal by Carol Royle who gives Howe’s wife a feisty edge as she challenges Thatcher on equality and homelessness.

Royle also gives Elspeth a sympathetic side towards her husband, recognising his strengths and his weaknesses, and the difficulties of challenging the PM – until that final fateful speech when she encourages him to say what he feels rather than what is right for the party.

Hovering around them we have a whole Westminster village in the hands of Graham Seed, Christopher Villiers and John Wark

Seed provides Lawson, offstage Denis Thatcher and most telling, Ian Gow, besotted by Thatcher and a close friend of Howe, his old school chum from Winchester College. Gow acted as a go-between, calming the waters between Thatcher and Howe and his assassination by the IRA at tspeechhe end of July in 1990, also killed, perhaps, the last hope of peace breaking out between the Prime Minister and her Deputy

Villiers gives us the bluff, blunt Thatcher Press secretary Bernard Ingham, conduit to the Thatcher supporting Rupert Murdoch and his empire, and the womanising Alan Clarke, these days seen not so much as an upper class Jack the Lad as a Jack the Cad.

Wark was Howe’s private secretary Stephen Wall and a delightful Brian Walden, or Bwian as he would say.

Paul Bradley's Geoffrey Howe delivers the quietly devastating speech that was to bring down the Iron Lady

There is a wonderful scene as Howe and Nigel Lawson try to grab a meeting with Thatcher via telephone calls involving them, Wall and a Thatcher aide.  Four phones, 16 conversations and the timing is impeccable.

The trio also give us assorted ministers and MPs including Bill Cash and Neil Kinnock.

A simple set from Morgan Large, emphasised by David Howe’s lighting, is effective and helps director Ian Talbot maintain a good pace which is a necessity in any comedy.

There are plenty of contemporary references to give a current flavour, for instance, Thatcher apparently did not like men with beards, so declares even the Socialists would not elect a leader with a beard, or in a discussion on Europe when it is stated the people would rather have nothing to do with Europe, Howe states the people are not always right – to loud applause. It appears to have been Remainers night at the Rep.

At times it is very funny, with enough references to dates to give some idea of where we are on the timeline, and by keeping to a very narrow agenda, ignoring the political and social turmoil beyond Westminster, it becomes an intriguing journey through the relationship between Thatcher and her longest serving minister.

Labour’s Denis Healey had once famously said that an attack by Howe was like “being savaged by a dead sheep.” After the resignation speech the pair later crossed in the voting lobby and Healey smiled and said to Howe: “Geoffrey, I didn’t know you had it in you!”, Howe smiled back and quietly moved on. The dead sheep had become a live wolf and cemented a place in history. To 01-10-16.

Roger Clarke

26-09-16 

 Incidentally, Denis Healey and Geoffrey Howe were friends for many years and died six days apart in October last year, Healey was 98 and Howe 88.

Index page Rep Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre